An Interview with Rachel Martin, Fresh Off Making the HOW 100

In 2001, Rachel Martin left the advertising world with the intention of making a positive impact. She worked for a privately held and family run agricultural company, Louis Dreyfus, where she saw the opportunity to “make more of an environmental impact” at the B2B level. During this time she also operated her own freelance design studio, focusing on social change.

She left New York in 2007, relocating to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she contracted with local agencies until she went solo, turning her freelance design business into a full-time job. For over a decade she has focused on design for good, and what she calls “sustainable and socially responsible design.” Martin takes pride in her work, has always been passionate about her work, and is well known for her work. Having recently made the HOW 100, she shared her thoughts on design, the environment, what it means to make an impact, and why designers should consider making an impact their duty.

Old North Shrub

Q: What’s one example of a client you’ve worked with recently, where the results were for the betterment of society, culture, farmers, you name it, and why did it work so well?

Rachel: I always make sure that all of our design clients and design work serves the purpose and betterment of society or else I wouldn’t do the work. It has to have a positive impact on the world. One example of this is Old North Shrub, a small batch line of artisanal and seasonal botanical drinking vinegars made from ingredients farmed and foraged from the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The ingredients themselves are locally farmed, and the custom hand-drawn illustrations on the recycled packaging tell a story. It highlights local seasonal flavors and preserves these traditions rooted in Appalachian culture. 

Old North Shrub

Old North Shrub is an exploration of taste and place, it brings back a colonial-day drink with a modern twist that connects people to the land and to a local artisan flavor experience. What’s most exciting is that it can be a refreshing and healthy soda alternative (or an unexpected addition to a favorite cocktail) that we hope will become more mainstream. The shrub highlights and educates consumers about North Carolina’s heritage, rich soil and farm fresh ingredients along with it being a delicious way to support craft and the little guy, the farmer.

Nourish, plant-based, locally sourced, healthy and delicious prepared meals

Q: People are conscious of where they spend their money, and are willing to spend extra if it goes to something meaningful and valuable. What’s the biggest challenge in shaping brand narratives, to help them connect with people and also push that meaning and value?

Rachel: Educating consumers and building trust are the biggest challenges since there have been so many untrustworthy brands out there that are diluting the market with “slick” packaging but “greenwashing” messages and the hot debates about whether organic or natural even mean anything anymore.

I think more consumers are mindful and aware, but very cautious of brands and their value. Folks are willing to invest in companies and brands they trust as long as the company and brand is transparent, authentic and has several real touchpoints that are relatable. Telling the story has to come from within, so businesses need to be able to have a full-system approach from their sourcing, supply chain, internal structure, equity of their people, material use (about the product itself and the packaging) through how the product or service gets to the consumer. Consumers want to feel good about their purchases and big companies have a responsibility to make a larger positive impact (due to their size and supply chains) with serving community and our planet first over just profit.

Inizio Pizza Napoletana, handcrafted pies made with natural, organic and non-GMO ingredients, years of experience, intensive research and passion.

Q: What socially responsible campaigns or products have you seen over the years that strike you as successful, and why?

Rachel: There is so much noise in the world that it takes strong creative to stand out and be heard, let alone tell a value-added message highlighting sustainability. I think Patagonia does a great job doing this, and is the epitome of what a sustainable brand and business should look like. I love the brand, their mission and products including their “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign they run for Black Friday each year, and their pledge to donate the entire sum spent on the day to charities that align with their ethical values. It’s telling consumers, Our planet is more important than profit (because without it we’re all screwed), shop less, be mindful of our purchases and we’re all in this together. I’m also a big fan of their Patagonia Provisions food brand.

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for other designers who want to do the kind of work that you’ve dedicated your life to?

Rachel: Be realistic and start small. Sometimes it takes years for changes to take shape, so design with your heart, but be nimble enough to learn from experiences (whether good or bad) and have faith and purpose in what you’re doing. And whether you’re focused on sustainable design or not, you’re still running a business—either your own studio or being a freelancer for other agencies—and this is your livelihood, so you need to make sure you can make a comfortable living wage to be able to pay bills and live your life. Just starting out, you may need to work with clients that are not the dreamy and ideal social change makers, but it gives you the opportunity to educate them, and you can lead by example. Each person must do what’s right for them, so focus on your own destiny and don’t worry about what others are doing. Just because something has worked for someone else, doesn’t make it right for everyone. You do you.

A leading water technology company, Xylem is committed to “solving water” by creating innovative and smart technology solutions to meet the world’s water, wastewater and energy needs.

Q: You left behind the buy more world of big branding and big advertising. Looking back, why was it the right choice?

Rachel: Many small steps along the way have reaffirmed that I made the right choice to focus on sustainable design and conscientious work. We have the rising impacts of climate change, packaging and plastic waste polluting our oceans (Google: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch), industrialized farming, broken food systems and the loss of biodiversity, etc. The need for sustainable design and innovation is very much alive, and we need it now more than ever. In today’s world, most (if not all) businesses have an equal responsibility to people and to the planet. As designers, we are the ones that can either contribute to the problem or create positive change and come up with more useful solutions, materials and messages that can lead the cultural shift to design a better world.

I feel my design work is more purpose-driven and has a positive impact on social change versus just being ephemeral “look pretty” design destined for the landfill. Sustainable design is not for the faint of heart—it’s not easy by any means—and does often require a lot of patience to see the impact. I have faith, and am excited to work with clients who are successfully transforming their industries—supply chains and systemic change—for the global challenges we face. 

Pure Intentions Coffee, Charlotte’s First Fair Trade & USDA Organic Certified Coffee Roaster

Q: Since, as you say, sustainable design is not for the faint of heart and it often requires a lot of patience to see the impact, then what motivates you to do it, and why do you keep doing it?

Rachel: Ha! I often ask myself that same question. Even though it’s incredibly hard, it’s work that needs doing, it’s something that I’m very passionate about and I feel as though it’s my calling in life. I’m always still learning, growing and pushing forward keeps it exciting (and terrifying at times). And if not me, then who else?  

Rachel Martin’s Recommended Reading: sustainable design, ethically-minded design, design for good…


  • Cradle To Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough
  • Designing for Social Change by Andrew Shea
  • Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable by Nathan Shedroff

On the Web

  • The Living Principles for Design
  • Design Indaba
  • Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Images and image captions courtesy of Rachel Martin.

Edited from a series of electronic interviews.

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